A Trip to Penang, Malaysia

Well, just a short while back I decided on the spur of the moment to pack our bags and get a short flight to somewhere…… and that somewhere was to be Penang Island in Malaysia. The wife, Su, and I went to Hong Kong over the Songkran holidays in April, but to tell you the truth it was really too darned expensive to let it all go and sleep and eat and do what the heck we wanted. I guess it was that trip that fired me up to destine for Penang and have a real value for money vacation.

At first i was gonna take the train to Penang but Su didn’t fancy that all and she went our her way instead to get find a coupla cheapy return tickets with Thai Airways… in fact, it was to be the wife’s first epic journey on the national carrier, so she was a bit chuffed.

Now, one of the most common complaints you find on the Internet about Bangkok Airport is that the authorities charge those arriving a 50baht surcharge for a taxi into town. Well in Penang they don’t charge a surcharge like 50baht for a taxi, they do indeed charge 80baht. According to our new friend the taxi driver bloke, he informed us that he only gets 30 (300Baht) of the 38 Ringgit (380Baht) fare charged at the airport taxi booth. So, perhaps Suvarnabhumi airport should start sneakily charging tourists a taxi surcharge instead of doing it so blatantly, then they’d get less of a lambasting on the Net.

(Roti Chanai in Malaysia or Roti Nam Kaeng as it is called in the south of Thailand)

The hotel we booked on Agoda.com wasn’t quite as groovy as it looked in the pictures on the website but it was all right for the money – kinda the same value for money place you’d get in Thailand for about a thousand baht a night. Out of all the places I have ever been to in Asia, Penang, for me anyway, has the tastiest most cost-effective variety of food in such a small location. For breakfast the very first morning I couldn’t help but order a delightful helping of ‘Roti Chanai’ (Roti & Curry Sauce) a Malaysian/Indian breakie; almost as good as the ‘Roti Nam Kaeng’ (as they say in Thai) at the well-known ‘Mutaba’ Malaysian restaurant on Phra-athit in Bangkok, actually one of my fave restaurants in the capital.

Well, for the first day the wife and I had a stroll around Georgetown to take in all usual touristy stuff, most of which is old colonial style buildings. Now, Georgetown and the main backpacker center of Chulia Street, in my own opinion, have hardly changed in the past 18 years – this is of course a huge contrast to say downtown Thailand or Khao Sarn Road. And to tell you the truth, I’ve felt that the backpacker population in Penang has also been at a standstill over the years – the place where little changes.

In comparison to old Georgetown, the only place in Thailand which comes to mind with a slightly similar feel to it, is the old quarters of Phuket Town with its Sino-Portuguese architecture; though unfortunately, there’s not too much left these days. Anyway, Su was thoroughly impressed, and adhering to good-old Thai style, she spent half of the first day posing for as many pictures as her make-up could bear. Perhaps it’s just me, but I’ve hardly known any Thais who have seen the point in taking holiday pics without having someone stood bang in the middle of every single one.

(Thai people’s most popular destination in Penang, Kek Lok Si Temple)

It’d been about 6 years since my last trip to Malaysia (and a pop-over in Penang) so it was time again to travel to all the touristy places outside of Georgetown, which include the impressive Kek Lo Si Temple and the humungous image of Mahayana’s Goddess of Mercy (Jao Mae Kuan Im) which stands over the whole of Penang like a holy protector. Besides here, other places in the vicinity definitely worth checking out are Penang’s equivalent of Hong Kong’s viewpoint – Penang Hill, and the botanical gardens. All of which are just a few baht and half an hour or so by bus from under Komtar building in Georgetown. In fact, from Komtar there is a bus that goes everywhere on the island.

Unfortunately (for the wife that is….. not me) Penang isn’t much of a shopping haven and so after we had a quick look around the shopping center near Komtar, Su gave up on the idea of doing a whole day’s shopping – thank goodness. Ok, shopping there is all right, but if you’ve just come from Thailand, you’ll find that most of the stuff is just that bit more expensive with less of a choice. Even in the fresh market, sure they got durian and rambutan etc… but the wife said that the fruit there just wasn’t as juicy and tasty as she was used to back home; a bit dearer too.

Back to the fab subject of eating, one of Penang’s major draws and recall some of the best munchies there. Without a doubt the place to hang out in the evening and delve into anything from tom yum kung to chicken satay to sukiyaki to dimsum is the Red Garden Food Paradise which has a delicious diversity of eateries under the one roof. Just as in Thailand, you can order from several vendors at the same time. Then, if you’re there on time, you may be entertained by a chorus of different Chinese Singers in authentic attire. For something a bit more South Asian, then head to the wonders of Little India not that far down the road.

(No need to argue, our hotel sign says it all)

Now, most Thais seem to stick their noses up at Indian food, something to do with it being smelly but the wife has never had any problems with it – in fact, most Thais who I have known who have actually experienced real Indian food actually like it. Same goes for other Thai friends/family of mine who have lived abroad; one kebab is never enough. Being typically British, I have a fetish for Indian food, but I always found a decent inexpensive curry hard to come by in Bangkok. This isn’t of course, a problem in Penang’s very own Little India where you can stuff yourself for a 100 or so baht a head. And being an authentic Indian restaurant, I made sure I had the wife try eating some of her chicken biriyani with fingers only – always a laugh for the camera!

So, if you fancy getting away from the Land of Smiles for a few days, then perhaps you should have a think about visiting Penang – not that far away at all…

Travel Tips from Thailand:

Penang is just a bit more expensive than your usual Thai town. For convenient downtown accommodation, check out the Chulia Road area. If flying to Penang isn’t your cup-of-tea, then there is the Bangkok-Penang international express train. If you are in the south of Thailand and wishing to travel on to Penang, get to Hat Yai first and from there, there are regular passenger vans to Penang which do the trip in around 3 hours.
A scenic touristy way from Thailand to Penang is to take the boat from Satun in Thailand to the Malaysian island of Langkawi and from there another boat on to Penang.

For those wishing to apply for a Thai visa in Penang, there is little point in going to the Thai embassy (it’s quite out the way) as there are plenty of travel agents/guesthouses in the Chulia St area which do visas for you, for a small fee.

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